On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, for marching for civil rights without a permit; he remained in jail for 11 days, during which he wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” That is, 56 years ago this very week, King was in jail and writing the Letter that continues to inspire thousands of people.
My students and I read King’s Letter fairly early in the year whenever I teach AP English Language and Composition, both because it is brilliant in its own right and because it lays the groundwork for my pedagogy of asking students to begin building what I call “an internal library.”
One of the many things that astonishes me about King’s Letter is that he wrote it under such adverse circumstances. An ally smuggled into his jail cell the newspaper that contained a statement by eight white Alabama clergymen denouncing King’s activities, and he immediately began writing a response. As he later explained, “Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.”
And yet, sitting there in his jail cell, writing on scraps of paper and with nary a book in sight, King draws powerfully on 2,000 years of resources. He discusses ancient and modern history as well as current events. He quotes from the bible, from legal statements, from Abraham Lincoln and from Martin Luther. And he can do all of this because he essentially carries those writings within himself. In my imagination, I see him going into his own mind and browsing the bookshelves of the extensive library that resides there.
An internal library helped King write an extraordinary manifesto of civil rights, and that Letter has in turn become part of my own internal library. I turn to it often when I’m trying to work through the right and wrong of a situation … and by “turn to it,” I mean that I call up the relevant passages in my mind. Yes, I could easily look it up on the internet, but I know it well and can simply flip to the passages I want in my own mind. My internal library comes nowhere close to rivaling King’s, but in just this past week, I have pulled King, Henry David Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson off the bookshelves of my mind so that I can consult and quote from them.
And so I have my students begin to build their own internal libraries. My AP English Language and Composition students select and memorize five lines from King’s Letter that they can imagine wanting to consult in the future. My US History students this winter memorized and recited Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” so that “of the people, by the people, for the people” now lives within them. I asked my seniors this month to choose five books from their high school reading that they want to be able to carry around with them mentally. And later this spring, my ninth graders will memorize the speech of their choice from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and I will tell them the story of a wonderful spring day several years ago, when my class was performing the final act from the play for some visiting grandparents. As one student began speaking Macbeth’s “out, out, brief candle!” speech, a grandmother began delightedly reciting it with her, having learned it in her own high school days. There could have been no better lesson in the joy that comes from a well-built and well-maintained internal library.
What’s on your own library shelves?